Allegations of match-fixing for betting purposes, of cocaine-taking and, to cap it all, of poisoning an opponent. It has been a turbulent season, to say the least, for the tennis world.

While investigations continue after some male players claimed that they had been approached to throw matches, the game has had two more jaw-dropping moments.

First, Martina Hingis, winner of five major titles, announced last week that she was retiring after testing positive for cocaine at Wimbledon this year. But, at the same time, she denied ever taking drugs.

Then, this week came the extraordinary allegation that Germany’s Tommy Haas was poisoned before a crucial match in his country’s Davis Cup semi-final in September against Russia in Moscow.

In Haas’s absence with severe stomach pains, Germany lost both of the final singles rubbers and Russia won the tie 3-2. The International Tennis Federation says it will investigate the claim, made by an unnamed Russian to Haas’s team-mate Alexander Waske, although the German tennis association has played down the allegation.

After all this, the sport’s chiefs will be relieved to see the men’s Tennis Masters Cup, the season’s big finale, begin in Shanghai tomorrow. It is open only to the year’s top eight singles players and doubles pairs, boasts huge total prize money of $4.45m and is regarded by some in the game as the “fifth grand-slam” tournament. So officials will be hoping that attention will at last return to events on court, rather than off.

Given the quality of the field assembled under the petal-shaped roof of the Qi Zhong centre, they should not be disappointed, although the players are always a little weary after the 11-month season.

One blow is the absence of David Nalbandian of Argentina, the most in-form player in the world at present after dramatically reversing a career that had seemed to be in inexorable decline for the past two years. He narrowly failed to qualify, finishing ninth in the race, despite winning the recent Masters Series tournaments in Madrid and Paris.

Indeed, the qualification process, after a year-long points race, has proved a thrilling hors d’oeuvre to the main course. While the world’s top three – Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic – booked their flights to Shanghai months ago, the final line-up was confirmed only last Saturday in Paris.

In the end, Richard Gasquet, the 21-year-old Frenchman, snapped up the eighth place by reaching the semi-finals in the French capital, pipping the likes of Nalbandian, Spaniard Tommy Robredo and Britain’s Andy Murray. So close was the race that only 29 points separated eighth and 14th place.

The field that has emerged is a potentially enthralling blend of established top 10 players and some of the “young gun” generation, such as Gasquet and Djokovic, who many expect to become grand-slam tournament champions.

Yet, once again, most roads lead to Federer, the world number one who is chasing his fourth Tennis Masters Cup title in five years. This year the genial Swiss won three of the four majors. It was the third year that he had achieved this feat and took his tally of grand-slam titles to 12, just two behind Pete Sampras’s all-time record.

As Jim Courier, the US former world number one, says: “Federer has had an astounding year again.”

Federer’s cause in Shanghai has also been helped by the draw for the round-robin, group stage. The eight players are divided into two lots of four, with the top two from each progressing to the semi-finals. The Swiss is drawn in a group with Andy Roddick of the US, Russia’s Nikolay Davydenko and Fernando Gonzalez of Chile, and against these three he has a combined win-loss record of 34-1.

The absence of Nalbandian will also boost Federer’s campaign, for the Argentine, 25, displaying a greatly improved serve and level of fitness, beat the world number one in both Madrid and Paris, and dished out a 6-4 6-0 thrashing to Nadal in the final of the latter tournament.

Nevertheless, Federer’s competitors will cling to the recent chinks in the Swiss’s armour, and also recall that Djokovic defeated him in Montreal before the world number one avenged that with victory against the dynamic Serb in the US Open final.

Meanwhile, the other group looks likely to offer more fireworks for the round-robin stage, comprising Nadal, the three-time French Open champion and Federer’s chief rival, another Spaniard David Ferrer, Djokovic and Gasquet.

Djokovic, in particular, will be one to watch. He registered his determination by travelling to Shanghai early to maximise his preparation. And Nadal will immediately want to exorcise his drubbing in Paris when he faces Gasquet in the opening match.

As for the week-long tournament’s aspirations to be the fifth major, the jury still seems to be out. However, it certainly has a special status in the players’ eyes according to Courier, himself the winner of four grand-slam titles. “It is the cream of the crop for the season,” he says. “It is a special feeling to be involved in that event, facing off against the best that the world has to offer. It is a very important title to the players.”

Greg Rusedski, Britain’s former US Open finalist, adds: “After the grand slams it is probably the next biggest thing on the line.”

An overall judgment of the tournament may have to wait until 2009, when the Association of Tennis Professionals switches it to London’s O2 Arena for four years and renames it the World Tour Finals.

The tournament’s spell in Shanghai has been an important showcase for the sport in the big Asian market but the journey is arduous for players coming immediately after the European indoor tournaments. Combined with a rescheduled, shorter tour that also begins in 2009, the event may at last come into its own.

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